Got a little down time during the holidays? Why not gear up for snake season? We've had hunts for alligators, bears, wild turkey and deer. Now it's time to go nab a python.
These reptiles are not an indigenous species. Some were accidentally released into the wild decades ago. Others were let loose intentionally by owners.
And now, there are thousands of these snakes — some more than 17 feet long — living on the state's public lands. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issues special permits to licensed hunters who help remove the snakes on a year-round basis.
But this ongoing removal program has not done enough to protect native wildlife from these snakes. These pythons prey on native species of mammals, birds and other reptiles, as well as other nonnative species. That's why the FWC needs regular, everyday hunters to help turn the tide.
The 2016 Python Challenge begins at noon on Jan. 16 and ends at 7 p.m. on Feb. 14. It costs just $25 to enter, and you could win $3,500 if you catch a whopper.
These constrictor snakes, native to India, China and the Malay Peninsula, can grow to be 26 feet long and weigh more than 200 pounds. But while the Burmese python may be one of the biggest snakes in the world, most specimens in Florida average 6 to 9 feet.
Pythons like the water, but they are also excellent climbers. Residents of South Florida often see the large snakes crossing roads, especially after sundown.
While Burmese pythons have been popular as pets, they are currently listed as a "conditional species" in Florida and can no longer be bought or sold. They are also listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an Injurious Species under the Lacey Act, which means they cannot be imported into the United States or transported across state lines.
During cooler months, Burmese pythons can be found on levees that run along many of the canals you'll find in South Florida. After a cold night, the snakes often lay on the land, soaking up the morning sun. Spotting these snakes may be easy. But catching and killing one is a different story.
All Python Challenge participants are required to take an online training class — sign up at pythonchallenge.org. However, advice on how to subdue the snake is minimal. This hunt is not for the faint of heart.
Unlike alligator hunting, where you can snag or harpoon the reptile from a safe distance, to "capture" and "dispatch" a Burmese python, you can't help but get up close and personal. Snake hunters are expected to dispatch the python "humanely" with a firearm, machete or "captive bolt pistol," a device commonly used to euthanize cattle.
But remember, these nonvenomous predators have sharp teeth, and they typically bite their prey with viselike jaws before encircling it with their long, muscled bodies. They may not crush you to death (as long as you have a buddy to help subdue the snake), but it could leave a nasty scar.
Pythons are not considered particularly good table fare, at least in Florida. Most of the snakes in question are found in the Everglades, and tests have proved that their meat contains unsafe levels of mercury. So you really can't eat them.
But then again, you can't let them continue to reproduce and throw off nature's balance.